The summer of 1969, just before my senior year in high school, was filled with songs, adventures and events which effect me to this day. The Doors, led by the tragic, self-destructive poet, Jim Morrison, released a complex and adventurous album called, “Soft Parade”. The title song began with a chant, “When I was a young man in seminary school, there was a person there who put forth the proposition that you can petition The Lord with prayer”. This introduction ends with the scream, “You cannot petition The Lord with prayer”, leading to the song itself.
Obviously, Jim Morrison’s background and lifestyle had nothing to do with Judaism, but, echoing from 45 years ago, he points at a contemporary paradox for both Judaism and all other prayer-based faiths. The past month, beginning with the kidnapping/murder of the three young Israeli students, Eyal Yifrach, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel, all of blessed memories, continuing through the ceaseless rocket attacks against Israeli citizen, originating from Hamas-ruled Gaza, has led to numerous rabbinic calls to recite Tehillim (Psalms) and to say special prayers for safety and well-being.
As we know, in the case of the kidnapped boys, the prayers and Psalms didn’t yield the desired results and the third Gaza war is still underway. I remember, during both of my parents’ final illnesses, praying/pleading for their recovery; there, also, I didn’t see the outcome I’d so desperately wanted. But the efficacy of our prayers is only one side of this complex question. Although it’s often promoted by many wise and prominent rabbis, both now and in antiquity, and is also presented as effective numerous times in the Torah (Sh’mot 32:11-14, BaMidbar 12:13 and others), and, along with fasting is mandated as community response to looming disasters (Megillat Esther 4:17 and others), there are also serious questions about not merely the efficacy, but also the propriety.
A friend, Brian Blum, recently published a very revealing and personal column in the Jerusalem Post which addresses these ideas. I’ll try to not repeat the points he so strongly makes and I hope you’ll read it for yourselves.
I do want to emphasize that there is something that seems theologically fishy in trying to manipulate the Infinite God, be it with words, both prayers and Torah recital, with increased mitzva observance, “good acts” of generosity and love, of fasting and communal coalescence. Of course, each of these activities are positive and can yield untold benefits both to the individual and to the world at large, but it’s very arrogant to think that we understand the mechanisms underlying them or that they, somehow, give us power over God.
Of course, we also have a very rich tradition that tells us the exact opposite, that a Tzadik (holy righteous person), presumably through prayer, has the ability to both decree, expecting God’s fulfillment and, even more powerfully, to cancel God’s own decree! (Moed Katan 16b). We also have the prayer of Yitzchak to heal Rivkah from her barrenness (Bereishit 25:21) where the Talmud (Yevamot 64a) teaches that God extended Rivka’s period of barrenness because He “so loves the prayers of tzaddikim“, and perhaps, like it often does, the Talmud provides an opening for an answer.
The paradox is that we are, indeed, encouraged to enter prayer (tefilla) in order to make requests of God. The paradigm of Jewish prayer, the Amida, also known as the Sh’mona Esreh (literally, the eighteen, although in fact it contains nineteen prayers) opens with of three “prayers” of praise and ends with three of thanksgiving. On weekdays (when the Amida does, indeed, contain all nineteen prayers), the middle section, referred to as Bakashot, requests, is just that, presenting a shopping list to God three times each day! And if the formalized liturgy doesn’t provide for more personal issues, we’re encouraged to add our own words at various points. And this is just on “normal” days, times where we don’t have crises that seem to need Divine Intervention!
(It’s important to emphasize before proceeding that phrases such as “God wants”, “God promises”, and the like are never to be taken literally, but to give us humans a language with which to approximate and develop our understanding of the ineffable.) God “wants” our prayer and indicates this through halacha (Jewish law). There are times that He indicates that our prayers can be granted, but there is never a promise that it will work.
In other words, our tradition goes very far to incentify us to pray, but if we do pray with too much expectation to get what we want, we’re likely to become increasingly disillusioned (which can lead to alienation and worse). With such a potential downside, the glaring question is “Why?”
Throughout the day and throughout our lives, we’re given many opportunities and many “channels” to enhance our relationship with God (or to enhance our awareness of that relationship since it’s impossible for us to not be permanently connected). Torah study opens the intellectual/imaginative/creative/analytical “channel”. Mitzvot which involve actions bring our bodies and materiality into the game (Judaism is not, by any means, an ascetic tradition, but it’s aim is to refine, rather than merely indulge, our bodies). Mitzvot of tzedaka (charity) and hospitality and community participation, independent of their obvious benefits, bring us into our communion with God along the parameter of relationship. Similarly, prayer, tefilla, deepens our relationship with God along the emotional plane.
It’s not impossible that the benefits that accrue to our universe with enhanced relationships between God and man might lead to a better material world, i.e. a world where our desires become actualized. It might, in certain times (that we have no ability to predict) be very effective, but although our desires provide the stimulus to pray, having our desires fulfilled is definitively not the real objective of tefilla.
So, these special prayers and special mitzvot, if they do indeed deepen our connection with The Creator along the prayer “channel” are good things. The crises may very well motivate many of us to steps of spiritual progress and growth. They give us and often-highly-motivated boost. But the ultimate purpose is not to receive the “goodies” on the other end.
And, in face of the paradox, I personally do pray for a secure and safe future for all living in Eretz Yisrael.